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Since Covid-19 is a new disease, Digit didn’t have past data on its severity and escalation. So, the insurer studied other infectious diseases like SARS and looked at how it had panned out in the affected nations, added Chaturvedi.

As a fixed-benefit product under the sandbox regulations, the liability of Digit’s policy was predetermined. IRDAI sets limits on the sales of a product under the sandbox: sell for either six months, or till you sell 10,000 policies, or sell upto Rs 50 lakh.

“We hit the Rs 50 lakh limit in about three weeks, so we had to stop it,” said Chaturvedi. “We are now looking at the data to see if we want to launch a retail product [outside the sandbox].”

Digit’s Covid-19 policy was the only retail product in the market for three weeks. Most companies have only launched group policies with fixed benefits to limit their risk. A retail insurance policy is bought by individuals, while a group policy is typically offered by companies to its employees as a health benefit. Retail insurance is more robust than group insurance, as the retail policies come up for regular renewals and are not subject to as much pricing pressure as group policies.

“We are seeing how the disease progresses before launching retail products,” said Sanjay Datta, chief underwriting officer at ICICI Lombard. The insurer has launched a plan where it sells Covid-specific cover through companies like e- commerce retailer Flipkart. “We are planning to limit the number of policies sold. These are hard to get right,” Datta added.

Like Digit, other companies have also studied the epidemiology of diseases similar to Covid-19, such as SARS and H1N1, to come up with pricing for their policies. But these diseases were far more contained than Covid-19, making this pandemic particularly hard to price.

Ayushman Bharat

The Indian government’s scheme, which gives free health insurance to 500 million people, is going to add to the burden. The government usually pays the premium to private insurers. “We are anticipating an increase in the volume of claims from this route too,” said an executive at HDFC Ergo.

Uncalculated risk

Star Health’s Dr Prakash says the incidence of Covid-19 is higher than any respiratory-related illness. To remove uncertainties, insurers have gone the fixed-benefit route. They pay a fixed lump sum on detection of Covid-19 rather than covering the cost of treatment. But there’s a big risk here: if the incidence rate is miscalculated, insurance companies may face a massive number of claims.

“Covid-19 covers are a bad idea for insurers unless they have a definite strategy of quick scaling and also upselling their base plan,” said Jayan Mathews, co-founder of Vital, a platform for health insurance and financing. He was the former product head at Apollo Munich Health Insurance, before it was acquired by HDFC Ergo in January. “If they don’t get the adequate numbers quickly or ensure they have the correct risk premium, they won’t have a diversified enough portfolio to bear the concentration of risk.”